My job last summer at Taco Bell gave me a new and refreshed appreciation of my gender and a new perspective on the travails of my feminist foremothers as I desperately tried to understand how a certain half of the species, that seems incapable of flushing toilets, let alone leaving the soap dispenser in one piece, can possibly have run Western civilization since the founding of an agriculture-based society. So, here, in partial tribute to all those brave and patient women living in a world of neurotic revolutionaries who probably called their domesticated animals by Classical allusions, is a short history of women in the French Revolution.
Women were just about the only traditionally oppressed group in the Revolution who didn't, at some time, make phenomenal strides towards freedom and equality. The sans-cullotes, Protestants, Jews, blacks, even actors were at some time allowed to vote. Women were not. Hey, gals, let's just face it. Life's not fair.
Women in the Ancien Regime
Actually, women under the ancien regime held remarkable power. Aristocratic hostesses like Suzanne Necker and Sophie de Condorcet (whose husband, the Marquis de Condorcet, did believe in female suffrage), among others, opened intellectual saloons where the fashionable philosophes of the day would talk. These were the breeding grounds of revolution. Of course, these were just the aristocratic women, most of the peasant women tilled the fields with their husbands just as sans-cullote women (the fishwives) worked as venders or in the earliest types of factories. The Enlightenment had led, of course, to a great deal of talk about equality--racial, religious, economic--but when it came to sexual equality the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the rather paranoid man held as a god by a generation of revolutionaries, answered a flat no. Women should stay at home, be good mothers to their children, and obey their husbands. Women were just too stupid to make political decisions. Lord knows they'd probably plunge their country into some internecine abbatoir where you could be beheaded for addressing someone in the "vous" instead of "tu" form---sorry.....I'm not exactly fond of Rousseau. But his pastoral vision of the masculine General Will living in a domestic idyll via exploiting its feminine companions would dominate Jacobin revolutionary thought.
Urban Women in the Revolution
Nevertheless, from the start the urban women of Paris played a large role in the unfolding of the Revolution. Since they had the mouths to feed at home, any fluctuation in bread price affected them very deeply. And they were ready to riot about that. It was a mob of fishwives, led by the ex-courtesan Anne Theroigne de Mericourt, who brought the royal family to Paris on October 6th, having marched to Versailles en masse the day before, demanding that "the Baker" bring bread to the starving Parisian population. Women were active in the galleries of the National Assembly, always ready to plead their hunger and demand action.
The Struggle for Women's Rights
Women also fought to obtain some of the democratic blessings of the Revolution for themselves. In response to "Rights of Man and Citizen", prominent woman of letters and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges wrote "Rights of Woman and Citizen" in 1791--a document that called for the same suffrage, property and civil rights to pertain to women as to men. Simultaneously, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English radical who would be the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Women. It was a work so far ahead of its time in demanding universal suffrage and common-law marriages, among other things, that it foreshadows the feminist movement of our century. Although these documents were to remain only ideals, women did make some small steps forward. In 1790, the Dutch baroness Etta d'Palme won the right for women to file divorces. The Paris Commune declared spousal abuse a crime.
Women in the Army
When war broke out, many patriotic women were eager to take up arms to fight for their country. The "Amazons", a Parisian militia, begged the National Assembly that they could "fight with weapons other than a needle and spindle." The Rameau sisters joined the war effort in men's clothing, distinguishing themselves in battle for their bravery and competence. But in late 1792, women were officially banned from joining the army, though France was in desperate need of soldiers.
Women's Clubs in Revolutionary Paris
This did not stop Parisian women from taking an active, an sometimes violent, part in national affairs. Women's clubs were founded, the first being Etta d'Palme's Friends of Truth club. There revolutionary ideals were discussed and several feministic concepts were born. The most radical of these clubs was the Revolutionary Republic Women (the RRW) headed by actress Claire Lacombe and chocolate-maker Pauline Leon. These women focussed not only on getting bread for themselves and their neighbors, but also in expanding literacy and obtaining female suffrage and right to bear arms. The RRW allied itself with the Enragés, the most radical left-wing party headed by the "red priest" Jacques Roux, and it was to a large point destroyed and its leaders jailed with the arrest of the Enrages.
The Backstage InfluenceWomen sometimes played important, though behind the scenes, parts in politics. Queen Marie Antoinette , for example, was known (and hated) for controlling her weak-willed husband. Manon Roland, wife of Girondin Minister of the Interior Jean Roland, was the hostess of the Gironde part but de fact was much more than that. She ghost wrote her husbands speeches, many times decided party policy and advised her male colleagues. The Robespierrists, progressive as they were in other respects, seemed almost afraid of the emerging feminism and made a big show of beheading the most famous female revolutionary figures--Marie Antionette, Madame Elizabeth, Lucile Desmoulins, Manon Roland. By the time of the Great Terror, women's rights was once again a distant dream. Women were told by the National Convention that they would just have to wait and in the mean time to go back to their children.
Women After Thermidor
After 9 Thermidor, the government was in a large way ruled by women. Especially influential was one woman, Therezia Carrabus, who was said to have inspired her husband Jean Tallein to conspire against Robespierre in the first place. Therezia played the eminence gris during the years of the Thermidorean Reaction and Directory becoming so intimately involved with who was ruling that she was nicknamed "property of the government." Saloons once again opened up under Madame de Stael and Madame Recamier. But the failure of women's rights was apparent in the words of the coming ruler, Napoleon, who, asked who the greatest woman in history was by Madame de Stael answered, "The one who bore the most children."